King Lear: Philosophically Re-Mastered


-Winston Smith, waking from a dream, in George Orwell’s 1984

The work of William Shakespeare has always been considered among the greatest treatises upon human nature, so much so that George Orwell would even use the name itself as a euphemism for freedom and life against inhumanity and slavery in 1984. But views on existence and life change over time, and divergent philosophies draw different lessons on his works. And with the development of feminist ideals and ideologies in the past half-century, they have naturally been applied back to the grand master.

Shakespeare has often been a tool in promoting the ideas of previous movements. For example; Sigmund Freud helped introduce psychoanalytical and oedipal ideas with the characters Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius. However, Shakespeare has often proven to be a thorn to the side of feminism. Feminist dealings with Shakespeare have more attempted to explain and rectify his works, rather than to search for correspondence. Especially omnipresent problems have been characters like Lady Macbeth in her Machiavellian scheming and violence, and the two elder daughters of King Lear, Goneril and Regan, in their greedy machinations and betrayals.

Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is one such attempt to explain for the former pair from “King Lear” (rechristened Ginny and Rose, homonyms) using feminist doctrines. She does this through juxtaposed portrayals of the characters, developing the men as negative archetypical figures of abuse and the female characters as victims of their violence and lack of compassion.

Larry Cook is uncompromising, and his word is always final on the farm; when Caroline disagrees over the land transfer, Ginny explains the situation to her: “This isn’t a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of what he wants to do.” It always has been. Later, when the girls talk back to him, he rages: “I gave you everything, and I get nothing in return… Bitches… Whores…” In his patriarchal view, they do owe him all. But the truly dark side of Larry Cook is with his incestuous seduction of his daughters: Rose remembers, “…and that’s what we did. We had sex in my bed;” and it would eventually come back to Ginny: “I knew that he had been there to me, that my father had lain with me on that bed.”

        Pete Lewis is a monster in his own right with his beating of Rose, maiming of Harold Clark, and his violent threats, but his violence is often the opposite of Larry’s: Pete is a violent male force that Rose is forced to keep around at risk to herself to protect her daughters from Larry, Rose having said, “It helps that we have daughters. If Daddy did anything to them, Pete would kill him. That’s partly why I stayed married to him.” Pete is also insensitive to Rose and her troubles, “He told me when I got back from the hospital that he preferred me to keep my nightgown on if he was in the room” said Rose to Ginny, adding even more emotional and body image stress to Rose as she is recovering from cancer and a mastectomy.

        Ty Smith is not the quasi-barbarian that is Larry or Pete, but as much as they are monsters Ty is a insensitive materialist. His natural reaction to everything is nothing, like his repetition of “Ginny, settle down” at the last night of the Monopoly game and the “you could just endure it” quip to his wife as she expresses doubts on her father’s actions. The only thing he gets excited about seems to be the new hog operation: “Ty would pick some brochures off the stack… thumb through them, or he would scan the drawing the Harvestore man had given him… After perusing these, he would give a little disbelieving shake of his head, a low ‘Hmmp’ of satisfaction, and sometimes say under his breath, ‘Isn’t that something?’” Ginny had been severely abused by her father and needed emotional compassion and healing from a man like her husband, but Ty could never do that.

        Jess Clark is given a slightly more sympathetic treatment than any of the former characters, but in the end still ends up a dishonorable playboy who cannot offer anything to the women of the farm. He womanizes before coming to the farm, and then with Ginny and Rose, both married women. Ginny would warn Rose that “Jess’s a restless person. He has never settled down… He’s had plenty of women, too,” but Rose still attempts a relationship with him, and he walks out on her, leaving her destitute and soon after, dead. He wants women to love him, but cannot figure out how to love them back, and just hurts them along the way.

        Ginny and Rose are systematically attacked and worn down by each of these men: by the abuse of their father, the absence of compassion from their husbands, and, in seeking refuge with Jess, harmed by his noncommittal nature. The one female character that sides with the men (Caroline, in sympathy to her father) is shown as a traitor to her sisters/surrogate mothers. Pammy and Linda are also forced to suffer with their mother and aunt, as any child caught in the battles of its parent is naturally sympathized. Smiley also preserves her feminist theme in the choice of making both of the children female, denying the easy ability to feel empathy for any male, even a child.

        Smiley in A Thousand Acres writes illustratively with her feminist viewpoints and gives the final absolute impressions she desires. Her allegory with “King Lear” however diverges severely at many instances, and she ends up failing in her ultimate goal to excuse Goneril or Regan. Despite that, her convincingly negative portrayal of the men and sympathetic one of the women does succeed in forcing the events that transpired on the Cook thousand acres to be seen through her feminist lens.



Paragraphs that were developed in writing, but didn’t make the final cut:


        Smiley writes convincingly negative about the male characters and succeeds in showing the events in A Thousand Acres through a feminist lens, but isn’t too in keeping with the “King Lear” allegory, omitting things like Oswald (Goneril’s enforcer-assassin), Lear’s repentance, Goneril’s successful murder of Cordelia; and inserting plot elements like the incest and cancer that are conspicuously missing in the original. Her story more ends up more her own than Shakespeare’s. She simply does not overcome Shakespeare, and she fails in application to finally excuse Goneril or Regan.


        Smiley works with the same basic storyline as Shakespeare and writes convincingly negative about the male characters in keeping with her feminist ideas, but strays too far in her allegory to really excuse Goneril and Regan (homonyms of Ginny and Rose) in “King Lear.” Conspicuously missing are elements like Lear’s repentance (Larry never would), Oswald (Goneril’s enforcer and assassin, the “serviceable villain”), Goneril’s murder of Regan and Cordelia and then suicide (Ginny would only attempt to kill Rose); and conspicuously present plot devices like the incest and Rose’s cancer (both missing in Shakespeare). While writing powerfully at times, Smiley’s selective version of “King Lear” fails


Smiley works with the same basic overarching storyline as Shakespeare—the transfer of land from a lone father to the next generation of three daughters—but she deep down fails to really excuse and re-portray forever Goneril and Regan (renamed in the near homonyms Ginny and Rose). Her allegory between A Thousand Acres and “King Lear” is forced in her re-portrayal to omit crucial parts of various characters, omit and add characters systems altogether, and insert various plot devices to make her version stand, driving herself so distant from Shakespeare himself to fail in her original goals.


Numerous gaps open up between many of her character sets, notably Lear=Larry and Cordelia=Caroline, who are traditionally the heroes, but become the villains for Smiley. But to make Lear into the monstrous abusive male patriarch, she must leave out whatever inclinations toward redemption he may have had, and contrive the incest plot devices, something copiously missing in Shakespeare. Lear starts off softer than Larry, replying to Cordelia’s misgivings about the land transfers with “How, how, Cordelia, mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes” in comparisons to Larry’s “You don’t know my girl, you’re out. It’s as simple as that.” And while Larry would never apologize or recognize his mistakes, Lear would come to lament his daughter’s death: “I might have saved her! Now she’s gone forever! Cordelia, Cordelia!”

        Ginny is given a few major passes through Smiley that she didn’t enjoy in “King Lear.” The whole entire character of Oswald in Shakespeare, described as a “serviceable villain” within the play, is left out. Oswald was hardly a negligible element of Goneril’s character, as he served as her assassin, attempting murders of both the Earl of Gloucester and Duke of Albany. Whatever Ginny’s feelings for the equivalent characters in A Thousand Acres (Harold Clark and Tyler Smith, respectively), she never attempts to kill them. Goneril herself gets in on the blood lust later, as told but Edmund: “[Regan] poisoned for my sake; and after slew herself… He hath commission from [Goneril] and me to hang Cordelia in the prison.” Ginny in A Thousand Acres is guilty of only an attempt at murdering Rose, leaving Caroline untouched, while Goneril attempts to kill many and succeeds in killing all the daughters of Lear, including herself. These are major and irreconcilable differences in the visions between the two works if the goal was simply to show the other side of the story, not radically re-write it to your views and aims.

        The Duke of Albany in the closing moments of “King Lear” perhaps gives it the best summary with “all friends shall taste the merits of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deserving.” Shakespeare offers a chilling tragedy of ingratitude and greed in a war between siblings and generations, but in the end allows us to continue and redeem ourselves. Smiley does none of the sort, and proves simply the untenable nature of her own position, by in arguing it, being forced to change the material for argument.